Sometimes it seems that every other week, someone is claiming to see images of religious figures (Mary and Jesus are the most common) on walls, in windows, or in their breakfast foods. What prompts these visions? Why would Jesus or Mary wish to make an appearance on someone's toast some morning? There's a curious disconnect with such incidents because the people can believe in them fervently, but religious authorities and institutions tend to be much more skeptical and critical. What's really going on here?
There is a name for this phenomenon: pareidolia. It's not limited to religious figures, either. Humans are pattern-seeking animals and sometimes we see patterns that we think are real objects when, in fact, they are not patterns at all. This is a survival mechanism which we evolved because in the long run it's far safer to mistakenly see a tiger in the bushes when there isn't really one there than to miss the tiger that really is there. Unfortunately, people are seeing far more around them than just a few false tigers in the bush.
Joe Nickell writes in the November-December, 2004 issue of the Skeptical Inquirer:
This tendency is known as pareidolia, a neurological/psychological phenomenon by which the brain interprets vague images as specific ones. These are known as simulacra (DeAngelis 1999; Novella 2001). Often the discerned image is a face because--as Carl Sagan (1995, 47) explained, As soon as the infant can see, it recognizes faces, and we now know that this skill is hardwired to our brains.
So, seeing faces and especially faces we recognize is simply hardwired into our brains. This shouldnt be surprising to anyone. Indeed, if anything is surprising its the fact that we dont see more reports of people seeing faces and figures in their food or on random walls. All this wouldn't be so bad, though, if people didn't treat these visions as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. In effect, the creation of a pattern in their brains is offered and proof of the truth of belief in the existence of supernatural beings which themselves solely exist in peoples mind's
Images of Mary are especially prevalent, appearing in a splotch of tree fungus in Los Angeles, a fence post in Sydney, Australia, a tree stump and a refrigerator door in New Jersey, a mottled rust stain on a water heater in Arizona, a bedroom wall in Nova Scotia, the bark of an elm tree in Texas, and so on--as shown by clippings in my bulging simulacra file (e.g., Virgin Mary 2003). One of my favorites is the form of the Virgin of Guadalupe in spilled ice cream (Stack 2000).
Images of Jesus are also frequently perceived--for example, in the foliage of a vine-covered tree in West Virginia, in rust stains on a 40-foot-high soybean oil tank in Ohio, a grimy window in an Italian village, and in the discoloration of a San Antonio living-room ceiling, among numerous such examples. In 1995, television viewers saw the face of Jesus in a photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing stars being born in a gas cloud some six trillion miles long (Nickell 1997, 5). A Sacred-Heart figure of Jesus (as well as an Easter bunny) is outlined in the wood-grain pattern of my orifice door.
Given how mundane and common this phenomenon is, why don't people first assume that the things they are seeing are merely the product of pattern-recognition aspects of their brain rather than a supernatural message until strong evidence for the latter appears? Perhaps because a mundane explanation means that they had a mundane, average experience. It means that today has been no different from yesterday, and probably no different from tomorrow. If they received a message from heaven, however, this means that they have experienced something extraordinary and that they are special.
This would mean, though, that such reports are more about personal ego than religious faith. This may be why the Catholic Church treats such reports skeptically and carefully. Although the alleged sightings might superficially appear to support Catholic beliefs, they are clearly about much more than just theology and doctrine. Catholic officials are right to be careful, but at the same time they can't undermine people's religious enthusiasm too much because this sort fervor can be very beneficial to the church, too.